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With just four teams remaining, options are limited and points will be hard to come by. In the NFC, we have a battle between two defensive juggernauts, while the AFC matchup features arguably the two best offensive attacks in the conference. Early weather reports predict calm and (relatively) warm weather in both Seattle and Denver, which is particularly good news for Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Now, on to some of the best picks for Conference Championship Sunday.
Tom Brady, NE, $7900 at DEN – It’s hard to envision either NFC quarterback having a big game, though Colin Kaepernick ($6700) comes at a reasonable price in light of the 49ers’ recent improvement throwing the ball. Still, the Seattle defense has just been too dominant at home this season, while Russell Wilson ($7500) has been shockingly ineffective over the last few weeks behind an offensive line that struggles in pass protection. Even at discounted prices, I have minimal interest in the two NFC quarterbacks, leaving a choice between Brady and Peyton Manning ($9400). If things go according to plan for the Patriots, Brady will throw fewer than 30 passes and spend most of his time handing off. That’s how it’s gone in each of the last three games, but the Broncos should offer more resistance Sunday. Denver finished the regular season with the NFL’s eighth-ranked rush defense, before holding the Chargers to 65 yards on 18 carries in the divisional round. The Patriots should have some luck running the ball but probably won’t win this one without a big game from Brady.
LeGarrette Blount, NE, $6900 at DEN – Blount closed out the regular season with a pair of two-touchdown performances, then exploded for 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns in last week’s divisional round win over the Colts. Denver’s defense should be more of an impediment, meaning Blount probably won’t get 24 carries for the third game in a row. Still, he’s emerged as the leader of New England’s three-headed backfield, and the Patriots surprisingly have the best running game of the four remaining teams. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Blount is playing the best football of his life, while handling the majority of goal-line carries for a very good team. Fellow Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley ($5600) and Shane Vereen ($6300) would be intriguing at lower prices but aren’t worth taking over Blount for a minor discount.
Frank Gore, SF, $5200 at SEA – No longer a top running back, Gore is still a crucial part of the San Francisco offense and comes at a friendly price. While it’s probably not wise to expect too much from a road matchup in Seattle, I’d much rather have Gore at $5200 than the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch at $7900. As fantastic as Lynch has been, Gore runs behind the better offensive line, and the 49ers’ defense is arguably just as scary as Seattle’s. The Saints actually had some success running the ball in Seattle last week, while the 49ers held the Panthers’ potent rushing attack to just 93 yards on 24 carries, with 54 of those yards coming from quarterback Cam Newton.
Julian Edelman, NE, $6900 at DEN – Edelman has clearly emerged as Tom Brady’s favorite option, averaging a whopping 11.7 targets in the last seven games. Brady has thrown 75 passes over the last three games, with 31 of those going in Edelman’s direction. If Brady is forced to throw the ball more often, which could very well be the case Sunday, it will likely mean a plethora of targets for Edelman. With top cornerback Chris Harris (torn ACL) now done for the season, the Broncos will be weaker on the back end than in previous weeks. Edelman should spend much of the game matched up against declining veteran Champ Bailey, who was once a superstar but is now mostly restricted to slot cornerback duties.
Wes Welker, DEN, $6000 vs. NE – Welker returned from his concussion without incident last week, finishing with six receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown on nine targets. He looked comfortable in the Denver offense all season and was utilized with surprising frequency in the red zone. It’s hard to predict which of the Broncos’ talented wideouts will produce in any given week, and the disparity in value between Welker and Eric Decker ($6500) or Demaryius Thomas ($8100) doesn’t match the price gap. It would seem that Welker’s price is down because of his late-season injury, despite the likelihood that his concussion is irrelevant to Sunday’s game. Welker also has some added motivation, after the Patriots chose not to meet his contract demands in the offseason, instead opting to sign the disappointing Danny Amendola to a long-term deal.
Golden Tate, SEA, $4400 vs. SF – With Percy Harvin (concussion) uncertain for Sunday, Tate may be left as the Seahawks’ clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver. Harvin ($4100) makes for an interesting play, if he suits up, but Tate is a safer option, while still possessing considerable upside. Don’t be fooled by last week’s game plan, as the Seahawks are unlikely to get away with a 2:1 run-to-pass ratio against the 49ers’ defense. The formidable San Francisco defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses but is more vulnerable in the secondary than anywhere else.
Julius Thomas, DEN, $5600 vs. NE – The Patriots and Seahawks don’t make regular use of their tight ends in the passing game, leaving us with a choice between Thomas and Vernon Davis ($5000), unless you care to throw a dart with Seattle’s Zach Miller ($3000). After watching what happened to the Saints’ Jimmy Graham last week, I’ll happily pony up the extra $600 for Thomas. Davis has to contend with Seattle safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, both of whom played major roles in shutting down Graham last week.
49ers, $3800 at SEA – With a pair of high-powered offenses meeting in Denver, it seems rather obvious to choose a D/ST unit from the NFC championship game. As fantastic as the Seattle defense has been all season, the 49ers’ offense has really stepped up in recent weeks. The Seahawks’ offense, meanwhile, has become far too reliant on Marshawn Lynch, with Russell Wilson and the offensive line struggling. The Seahawks are still probably the better defensive team, but the 49ers look much stronger on offense. Outside of quarterback and running back, San Francisco’s offensive personnel are head-and-shoulders above Seattle’s. Even if Percy Harvin (concussion) plays, the 49ers still have a much better offensive line and a superior receiving corps.
Phil Dawson, SF, $3000 at SEA – Although a matchup against the Seahawks obviously isn’t ideal, Dawson’s price and recent performance make him the best value at kicker this week. Long one of the most reliable kickers in the league, Dawson has converted 35 of his last 36 field-goal attempts, while hitting multiple field goals in 10 consecutive games.